Mill’s ‘Mental Crisis’ and Wordsworth’s Poetic Thoughts


This paper is to reexamine Mill’s own account of his ‘mental crisis’ in his autobiography with reference to Wordsworth’s poetics. How truthful could we take his recollection about what he had gone through 30 years ago? If there were anything he had learnt from Wordsworth at all, what exactly was it? In the introductory section, I went through Mill’s famous tribute to Wordsworth in his Autobiography with a particular attention to its use of Wordsworthian terms such as feelings, pleasure, and sympathy. Mill’s honest acknowledgment of Wordsworth’s beneficial influence left no room for doubt, which however does not provide us with any concrete details about it. In the first main section, I compared Mill’s recollection of Autobiography and his debate manuscript “Wordsworth and Byron” composed a few months later than “the autumn of 1828” when his first impressive encounter with Wordsworth’s poetry was made. The comparison showed that there was a great extent of consistency in basic assumptions and terminology in the two texts, which made Mill’s recollection much more credible than before. Both texts do present Mill’s clear-headed insight into Wordsworth’s anti-Bentham poetics couched within his unexpectedly Benthamite vocabulary. Wordsworth’s idea of “overbalance of enjoyment(pleasure),” in particular, proved very useful to Mill because it reminded him of their shared philosophical foundation of associationism. It was also the most powerful weapon for Mill in his mental struggle against the curse of the “habit of analysis” inculcated by his father. In the second main section, I explored the social dimension of what Mill termed as “the very culture of the feelings” in my reading of Mill’s “Inaugural Address delivered to the University of St. Andrews” in comparison with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” I find that the elements of enlightenment inherent in Wordsworth’s poetic practice were wholly taken into Mill’s theory of aesthetic education which he systematically developed into a university curriculum recommended in his inaugural address. In this context, Mill could be nominated as the real inheritor of Wordsworth in the reform movement because both tried to reach the end of social reform through the aesthetic education of the public. Mill’s alleged intellectual debt to Wordsworth is found to be more solidly grounded than usually thought, by which we could more safely argue that Wordsworth was indeed a decisive turning point in the development of Mill’s philosophy of liberalism.